How To Use Your Car As A Hotel

I've never been a huge fan of hotels. They're nice and all, and sometimes it's good to have a clean place to sleep and a hot shower when you're on the road. But when I'm away from home, I usually opt for the cost-free comfort of the back of my station wagon.

Hell, it's only sleeping, why should I pay anywhere from 40 bucks to hundreds of dollars per night to do something that can be done perfectly well for free? I did live in a camper van for two years, after all.

Let's examine this issue through the eyes of a Parking Lot Mechanic.

I've made sure to have a car that I can lay down in the back of since I was old enough to drive. Ok, so my first two cars were given to me, and I lucked out in ending up with a station wagon and a four-door hatch big enough to lay my weary bones during road trips and after parties that were raging enough to make driving home a dumb idea.

After those first two not-meant-for-camping camping-mobiles, I've owned everything from a Chevrolet van to my current '86 Subaru wagon — anything that can be quickly turned into a bed-on-wheels by rearranging some luggage. It's worked great for multi-day drives and reporting trips, the only discomfort being having to lie to the people I'm interviewing when they ask which hotel I'm staying in (free car camping is a liberty best exercised in private, because people think it's weird for some reason).

When I saw this video Hyundai released about "The world's first five-star hotel on four wheels," I had a good chuckle. Sure, the bed is nice, but let's get real; if you want a five-star sleeping experience, you get a conversion van, not a Hyundai i30, which isn't even tall enough to stand up in.

Let me be frank. Car camping isn't for everyone, and I'd be really surprised if a woman dressed like the one in this film would be the sort willing to give it a go. If you do it, hopefully you won't be like my ski bum friends who used to sleep in an E30 BMW in the Mammoth parking lot (god that sounds horrible), and you'll actually use a car that you can lay comfortably inside of. The i30 would actually work pretty well.

The woman pictured in this i30 ad is shown lounging luxuriously in the back of the car, watching twin DVD monitors and sipping on champaign. In no way is this realistic. She'd also have to do something with her luggage, which usually involves schlepping every single last bit of it around the car into the front seat (or stacking it in a precarious pile next to you), and bending awkwardly between the seats from the back of the car when you have to grab something you need. Then there's the changing of clothes, which, in a more or less normal-sized car like the i30, is a cramped, horizontal struggle that looks like sex to everyone outside the car, but is nowhere near as pleasurable to the person inside fighting in and out of their pants.

Another point I must raise is that of lavatory use. If this film were accurate, you would see the car, with the dim outline of that nice lady's head protruding from above the driver side fender as she squats next to the car for a before-bed piss. Then you'd probably see her standing next to the back hatch in her pajamas, holding a bottle of Fiji (this is luxury after all) and brushing her teeth. She'll have to spit the toothpaste somewhere, and the resulting streak of white toothpaste scum will undoubtedly knock a star or two from the Hyundai's rating as a luxury hotel.

But if you decide that these problems are surmountable and want to use your car as a hotel, here are a few tips to help you enjoy the experience.

Choosing a car

As I mentioned above, no one wants to spend the night huddled in a coupé in the freezing cold. If you're serious about this, it pays to have something you can stretch out in, tucked snuggly inside a sleeping bag if need be. It's also nice to have a place to stow your gear while you're sleeping.

  • Pickup trucks: Capped pickups are great. You can make drawers for the bottom of the bed, then put your mattress on top. There's also a thing called a Wildernest they make for some trucks, but those are only good if you're going to a campground. Staying inconspicuous is important in a lot of places. Since you're basically squatting and all. The downside with a pickup is its thirst for fuel.
  • How To Use Your Car As A Hotel

  • Vans: When it comes to choosing the ideal mobile living space, there's nothing quite like a van. Still small enough to be driven like a regular car, the interiors can be cavernous, even on relatively small vans like the Chevy Astro or the Dodge Caravan. The catch is, as with the pickup, fuel economy. But if you don't care about that, grab a big ol' van, line the interior with shag carpeting, and live in '70s pimp opulence. I used to own an '85 Chevrolet G20 that was a great hotel. It had seating for five, plus enough room in the back for all of my luggage and a double bed. It got 13 mpg, though.
  • SUVs/station wagons: I ran around in a Ford Explorer for a while, and if you don't mind giving up two of your seats, this is a great way to have enough room for two (maybe three if you're all small) people to sleep comfortably. You'll have to throw your luggage in the front seat, but if you don't have too much stuff, it works out. I picked my current '86 Subaru wagon because of its combination of sleeping space and fuel economy. But I'm 5'8". If you're tall, you'd probably appreciate a longer car, like a Volvo or something.
  • Hatchbacks: You'll have to curl up a little bit with these, unless you get one of those sexy Mazda6 four-door hatchbacks they haven't sold here since Bill Clinton was president. If you abhor the full-on station wagon but still want some space, this is the way to go.
  • Sedans and coupés: Come on. You don't really want this do you? How committed are you to traveling like a hobo, anyway? Well, a comfortable hobo.

What to pack

Make sure you have plenty of food and water, and pack for the conditions you will encounter. You should always have the following gear:

  • Cell phone: You never know when you'll need to call for help. Also, you might get bored when you're laying there in the dark silence of your car, so if you have a signal, it's a good time to catch up with friends and relatives. But for god's sake don't tell your mother you're sleeping in your car under a railroad trestle!
  • Water: This is a no brainer. You need to drink water anyway, and you want to brush your teeth and wash your face, don't you? Just because you're sleeping like a hobo doesn't mean you have to look/smell like one.
  • Sleeping bag/sleeping pad: Whatever the weather requires will do here. If it's going to be cold, make sure you bring an appropriate sleeping bag and extra blankets for above and below your body. Otherwise you'll either be miserable, or will die of exposure. Bring a hat and a pillow, too. It's better than way.
  • Flashlight: Headlamps work pretty well. Especially if you want to read without killing your car battery.
  • Bug spray/bear spray: The bug spray is for bugs, because no one likes being eaten alive by mosquitos while they're trying to sleep. The bear spray isn't for cops and robbers. It's for bears. Clearly.

Where to stay

I seriously doubt that the hotel-car setup pictured in Hyundai's ridiculous video is the real deal. Have you ever heard of a hotel allowing people to sleep in their cars in the parking lot? If they did, they'd probably charge enough to make it not worth it. That said, picking a spot where you won't get robbed or hassled is important. It's also a good idea to park somewhere you can find a place to pee (without soiling someone's doorstep) and spit out your toothpaste. Also, it pays to find a spot where you won't get hit by other cars/trucks, or get washed away in a not-dry-anymore dry riverbed like that guy in Into the Wild. Here are some spots you can try:

How To Use Your Car As A HotelS

  • Parking lots: Look around. Is anyone going to show up while you're sleeping and run you off (or worse, try to arrest/rob or kill you)? Use some common sense. A friend and I once car camped in a deserted parking lot next to a mission in Loreto, Mexico, thinking it was a legit spot. Waking up the next morning amidst a throng of parents dropping their screaming children off at school was pretty lame, and not just because their shrill, Spanish-speaking voices woke us up. It sucked being those shady guys sleeping in a beat-up car in a school parking lot. Luckily, it was Mexico and not the U.S., where there's a good likelihood the police would have been called.
  • Back roads: These can work out well, but again, that night-to-day conversion can be crucial. Make sure you have a clue what it'll look like when the sun comes up. Last summer, some friends and I drove a few miles down a dirt road in Middle-of-Nowhere, Mont. and camped there. The ranchers came to work at 5 a.m., waking us up with their big, noisy diesel rigs. Luckily, it was on BLM land, so they didn't give a shit that we were there.
  • A friend's driveway: If you're visiting a friend who doesn't have room or expects you to sleep on a hard concrete floor with a bunch of unwashed dogs, fret not! You can sleep outside in your car. I had to do this last year when my friend's mom said he wasn't allowed to have guests that week. Never mind that he was 40 years old and still lived with his mom. That's a completely unrelated matter. I slept in my wagon and enjoyed coffee with the family the next day.
  • Farm fields: Obviously, you should look for "No Trespassing" signs, but if there aren't any, fair game, right? I've camped in fields all over California and Mexico without incident. Mexico is the best, because there are other people who do the same thing, so there's community. On one reporting trip, I camped in a field near Mexicali and when I started the car in the morning, a Mexican dude who lived in a van nearby came over and invited me in for cervezas. Not too shabby.
  • How To Use Your Car As A Hotel

  • Freeway overpasses: Think about it. Down there, you can't be seen as cars speed by overhead, and you're in the shade, too. I slept under a freeway underpass in West Texas a couple of years ago, and until the DOT bridge inspector came by on his rounds, no one bothered me for hours. He was sympathetic to my cause and told me to watch out for the cops.
  • Cities: The urban jungle is a challenging, perilous place, and only the most dedicated should try sleeping in your car in a city. Quiet streets can be more prone to criminal activity. Well, unless they're in nice neighborhoods, and then, if you drive a crappy car like I do, you'll be subject to suspicious neighbors and police action. No bueno. Still, it can be done if you find just the right nook to park yourself. Be careful. A hotel room might be a little cheaper than a ticket, and will certainly be less expensive than fixing stab wounds.
  • There you have it. A more-or-less comprehensive guide to using your car as a hotel. As always, respect local laws and customs and consider your safety.

    Now that you have all of this information, you can see how silly Hyundai's i30 Hotel idea really is.

    Photo credits: Wolfmaan; zzchop; Benjamin Preston; Denver Post